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by Karim Ramdani (Inria)

Promoting Open Access without specifying the road chosen to reach it makes no sense. The author-pays road (APC Gold Open Access) is without a doubt the worst option.

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The Scientific Board of the French CNRS Institute for Mathematics (INSMI) has recently made the following recommendations to French mathematicians for their publications:

  • Do not choose the author-pays option for open access, especially for hybrid journals (a hybrid journal is a subscription-based journal, in which authors are given the option of paying publication fees (APC) to make their own article freely available);
  • Do not include in funding requests such publication fees (known as APC, author processing charges).

These recommendations perfectly illustrate the rejection of the author-pays model by French mathematicians, and more widely, by European ones [1].

Given that scientists are generally both authors and readers, the reader-pays model (the current dominant subscriptions based model) and the author-pays model (also known as APC Gold Open Access) might seem at first glance symmetrical, and hence equivalent. This is not the case for economic and ethical reasons.

Economic aspects
First, scholarly publishing costs in an author-pays model are higher than in the reader-pays model (whose costs are already unacceptably high). This statement is based on several projections made by French research institutions (CNRS, INRA) and the data available for the UK [L1] [L2]. At the same time, publishers’ costs decrease when moving to an open-access model (no printed versions, no managing fees for subscriptions and accesses rights). Second, the idea that universities will be able to control prices in an author-pays model by introducing competition between publishers is illusory. Indeed, most countries that started moving towards APC Gold Open Access have done so by signing contracts with big commercial publishers. Consequently, as with subscription negotiations today, universities will be in a weak position with no expected benefits from competition: it seems unlikely that any scientist will choose to pay €1,000 to publish with a small independent publisher, when Elsevier and Springer journals publish “for free” (the APC having already been paid at a national level). These economic arguments should disqualify any changeover towards author-pays models: either a partial one in which subscription costs coexist with APC costs (the ugly road to OA) or a complete one where only APC costs exist (the bad road to OA).  

Scientific and ethical aspects
The author-pays model is unethical as well as costly. It introduces an unacceptable inequality in access to publishing between scientists (especially if APC expenses are not centralised at a national level). In such a system, only “rich” researchers will be able to publish in the “best” journals, often the most expensive ones (in the UK, the average APC by article was £1,575 in 2014 and £1,762 in 2015, with a maximum APC around £3,200). In return, this will increase their “visibility” and their ability to be funded. Besides introducing such discrimination, the author-pays model also carries ethical risks inherent in its philosophy: why would a journal refuse to publish a paper submitted for publication when its acceptance increases its profit? The answer is obvious, as shown by the emergence of several "predatory publishers" [L3] in recent years.

Good roads to Open Access
The above criticisms echo the recent joint statement on Open Access of UNESCO and COAR [L4], warning both governments and the research community against a large-scale shift from subscriptions to open access via APC. Refusing such a shift, that will reinforce a historical oligopolistic situation, does not mean that the current situation is satisfactory. Many actions need to be undertaken:

  • Denounce the obscene profits of big commercial publishers and protest against their business practices [L5].
  • Cancel subscriptions when necessary [L6].
  • Develop and promote good roads to OA:
    • green Open Access (articles are placed in a repository and can be freely accessed by all) with its institutional repositories ,
    • fair Open Access with its sponsor-pays journals, like Discrete Analysis, Journal de l’École polytechnique or Epiga [L7].
  • Create new economic models for scholarly publishing, free of charge for the author and the reader, for instance: using institutional support (Episciences [L8], SciELO [L9]), sale of premium services (e.g., OpenEdition [L10]), crowd-funding (e.g., OLH [L11]), or library subscriptions.
  • Fight against the use and abuse of impact factors and bibliometrics and rethink the evaluation process.

Finally, perhaps the first battle we must fight is the one of words. For-profit publishers have appropriated the noble idea of open access to propose through APC Gold Open Access a model that preserves their commercial interests. We must denounce this openwashing [L12] that makes politicians think that all forms of open access are beneficial for scientists and taxpayers. Promoting open access without specifying the road chosen to reach it makes no sense. The author-pays road (APC Gold Open Access) is definitely the worst of them.


[1] T. Pisanski: “Open Access – Who Pays?”, Newsletter of the European Mathematical Society , June 2013, p. 54,

Please contact:
Karim Ramdani, Inria, France
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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